Puberty can get a little, um, hairy. In Turning Red, it transforms 13-year-old Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) into a giant red panda, which effectively doubles as a not-so-subtle metaphor for puberty in this Pixar allegory. The animated tale serves as handy story-time fodder seemingly meant to help parents of very young children explain in the abstract the physical and emotional changes one undergoes during this rite of passage.
Circa 2002, Meilin is a Chinese Canadian girl: bespectacled, opinionated, overachieving, and musical-instrument playing. She’s reared in a traditional (i.e. unassimilated) Chinese household inside a temple complete with winged roofs, cherry blossom trees adorning the courtyard, and a pond teeming with lotus flowers and carps – a little sanctuary tucked away in Toronto’s Chinatown.
While her archetypal domineering tiger mom Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) frets over minor disruptions to Meilin’s schedule, her father Jin (voiced by Orion Lee) does the cooking and keeps the family on an even keel. At school, Meilin has her squad of besties, who share her enthusiasm for the boyband 4*Town.
When Meilin wakes up one morning to discover that she’s transformed into a huge red panda, Ming rushes in with a large corrugated box containing ibuprofen, vitamins, a hot water bottle, and a wide selection of sanitary pads, assuming Meilin’s meltdown is caused by the arrival of her menstrual cycle.
Meilin discovers in the short term that she can return to her normal self via deep breathing and inner zen, but eventually learns that the transformation is symptomatic of a hereditary condition among the women in her family that requires a ritual in order to exorcise.
Unfortunately, her family schedules the ritual on the night of 4*Town’s performance at storied Canadian venue SkyDome (now known as Rogers Centre), presenting Meilin with quite a dilemma.
Unlike Up, which offers only limited details about its pint-sized Asian-American protagonist Russell, this latest Pixar feature is unabashedly Asian. During the opening sequence, Meilin sprints past a bake shop, a roast duck restaurant and a produce vendor in Chinatown.
She and Ming watch a Hong Kong soap opera on TV. Turning Red isn’t just posturing Orientalism, like Netflix’s Over the Moon; it’s actual lived experience of the Chinese diaspora. The film not only aces the Bechdel test, it also scores high on the Harold & Kumar test. (Asians and tests! A match made in heaven!)
Meanwhile, the SkyDome is hardly the film’s only bit of loving Canuckian detail. Loonies. French class. TTC Metropass. Lester B. Pearson Middle School uniforms. Carlton the Bear, mascot of the Maple Leafs, sitting on the math teacher’s bookshelf. Never have Canadians been this seen in a Hollywood movie; it almost feels fan-servicey. Director and cowriter Domee Shi, who also made Pixar’s Oscar-winning short Bao, is unmistakably a Canuck, and she’ll have you know it.
Meilin’s besties include Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indo Canadian, and Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), a Korean Canadian. The film doesn’t present them as monolithic, ethnically or personality-wise. Their school resource officer wears a turban, a nod to the Punjabi Sikhs living in Canada. A few women in the background are wearing headscarves. Although the film doesn’t exactly surface a South Asian character as beloved as Anupam Tripathi’s Ali Abdul in Squid Game, it’s far from the full erasure committed by Crazy Rich Asians.
In a time when Asian women in North America have endured so much hate and trauma, Turning Red is a little respite that celebrates them and their culture, resilience, intelligence, perfectionism, insecurities, anxieties, quirkiness, feistiness, ingenuity, sisterhood, love of food, etc. We all need a little reassurance once in a while to stay true to ourselves, and Turning Red is speaking directly to generations of Asian women in the diaspora when they need to hear this the most.